Page D1.2 . 06 June 2012                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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Steel Theatrics


New and Old

The ArtsQuest building relates to the industrial aesthetic of the steel plant through the use of materials such as concrete and steel. Yet Spillman Farmer's contemporary design avoids faux-historic caricature. This is clearly a 21st-century building that combines heavy materials with a fundamental sense of openness and light.

The second of two main buildings for Bethlehem's ArtsQuest organization, this four-story, 68,000-square-foot (6,300-square-meter) facility contains an art cinema, a restaurant/ concert venue, and several multipurpose spaces for eating, gathering, and watching experimental programming.

"This is a complicated performance box that enables five venues to go on at once," says Biondo. "It's very flexible and adaptable to accommodate different kinds of seating arrangements."

Facing north, toward the blast furnaces, a multistory wall of glass beckons to visitors, inviting them to enter. That crisp glass contrasts with locally manufactured concrete panels covering much of the building's other three sides.

The panels are mounted with their hand-screeded surfaces facing outward — a deliberately rough texture meant to fit in among the rusty, weathering surfaces of neighboring buildings.

"For us to put a new building there, we wanted to use some materials that had a history," explains architect William Deegan, a colleague of Biondo's. Deegan says the architects aimed to create a sense of raw elegance.

"We wanted that hand-screeding to show how the panel was made, with guys leaving their mark. We also put a dye in the concrete with a little bit of dirt. So it's not a new, pristine building."

The exterior concrete panels also act as load-bearing elements in a hybrid structural system, working in concert with a skeletal steel frame — much of which is exposed and painted International Orange, like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Visitors enter the building through an entryway modeled after the vernacular "shroud" doorways found in many of the site's industrial buildings. From this initially low-ceilinged opening, visitors move beneath progressively higher ceilings into a soaring two-story volume.

Here the historic blast furnaces are immediately made into the star attraction through the glazed north facade.

This factory-sized ground-floor space contains a retail shop and a seating area that can be opened up to the adjacent public plaza. A two-screen "alehouse" cinema and its concession stand are also located on this floor.

The second-floor mezzanine contains a multipurpose performance and gathering space that can be rented out for wedding receptions and corporate meetings.

From there, a dramatic orange spiral staircase, its form inspired by the stairs that snake around the historic furnace structures, leads up to the third floor.

The upper portion of the building is dominated by the two-story Musikfest Cafe, a food and concert venue, and it is here that ArtsQuest's vision for the building is truly fulfilled.

"The one real specific the client had for the vision was of the performer onstage with the furnaces in the background," says Deegan. And indeed, in the Musikfest Cafe, the performers stand in front of that north-facing glass wall.

Cantilevering to the west, an orange steel-framed balcony functions as both an open-air extension of this space and as an elevated spot from which visitors can view the site and take in the outdoor concerts staged in the lawn and plaza below.

Venue in Context

The ArtsQuest organization began as the presenter of Musikfest, a popular annual summer festival in Bethlehem that the group has hosted since 1984. That history informed the organization's approach to designing performance spaces, which presented interesting challenges for the architects.

"They're very used to putting on performances and events without a venue," explains Michael Metzger, also with Spillman Farmer. "So everything to them was just, 'We'll just change it to this.' Dealing with the concept that things would be fixed versus moving it three different places was sometimes difficult to get across. Even now they'll put things in places we hadn't planned. But they're using the building ingeniously in a sense."

ArtsQuest now hosts some of its many concerts at the SteelStacks campus — both indoors, in its cafe and cinema venues, and outdoors, in the campus's several plazas and at the Levitt Pavilion, an open-air performance shell designed by Wallace Roberts & Todd and located at the foot of the smokestacks.

The ArtsQuest Center and Levitt Pavilion complement each other architecturally, with the former's solidity and boxiness standing in counterpoint to the latter's smaller, origami-like form. The intervening plaza and lawn connect the two structures.

"We envisioned a large outdoor public piazza, so that and the [ArtsQuest Center's] public space would become one, with removable glass walls," explains Biondo. "It just becomes one large outdoor room."

Even with all the new and old buildings on the SteelStacks campus, there is still enough open space for the city and its residents to reclaim a relationship with the river flowing alongside, which for most of Bethlehem Steel's history has been cut off from the city's South Side by the plant.

And more plans for the site are in the works, with many buildings still available for conversion. "We're engaged with the city developing a master plan," Biondo says. "Some of the buildings are in pretty dire disrepair. We're hoping they can be repurposed."

One such conversion was recently completed. At the west end of the blast furnaces, the historic Stock House building — the plant's oldest remaining building, dating to 1863 — has just been restored and adapted by USA Architects to house ArtsQuest offices and a regional visitor center.

ArtsQuest also plans to adapt the nearby Turn and Grind Shop to serve as an open-plan multipurpose space called the Festival Center. Local architecture firm Artefact Inc. is designing the project, for which ArtsQuest is hoping to begin construction in 2013.   >>>

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ArchWeek Image

A wide new plaza separates the ArtsQuest Center from the plant's inactive blast furnaces. An arching sculpture in the plaza pays homage to the site's industrial past and gestures toward the Levitt Pavilion at the foot of the smokestacks.
Photo: Paul Warchol Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The plaza at the ArtsQuest Center also serves as a venue for performances.
Photo: Paul Warchol Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks site plan drawing.
Image: Spillman Farmer Architects Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The nominally four-story ArtsQuest Center is expressed as two double-height volumes with partial intermediate mezzanine levels.
Photo: Paul Warchol Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks site section drawing.
Image: Spillman Farmer Architects Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A multi-landing linear stair leads visitors from the ground floor up to the second floor of the ArtsQuest Center.
Photo: Paul Warchol Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks ground-floor plan drawing.
Image: Spillman Farmer Architects Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The upper three floors of the ArtsQuest Center are connected in part by a sculptural steel-and-glass spiral staircase.
Photo: Paul Warchol Extra Large Image


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